Tuesday, October 23, 2018
Amid growing global condemnation of elephant riding as a tourist activity, Yok Don national park in southern Vietnam has ended the practice and replaced it with the first ethical elephant experience of its kind in the country.
The formally captive group of four elephants were released from their chains earlier this month and no longer carry tourists on rides through the park. Visitors can instead observe the animals roaming freely in their natural habitat.
Previously, the Yok Don elephants, like many around the country, were chained up for extended periods of time, often without access to water. They were harnessed with heavy riding baskets, sometimes carrying tourists around the park for nine hours a day.
The largest of Vietnam’s nature reserves, Yok Don is in southern Vietnam near the Cambodian border, and is home to other wildlife, including leopards, red wolves, muntjac deer, monkeys and snakes.
The park worked on the initiative with Animals Asia, which campaigns for long-term changes in animal welfare and tourism in China and Vietnam. The official agreement between the charity and the state-run park was signed on 13 July, and runs until April 2023, with the first tours taking place earlier this month. Over the next five years, it is hoped that the new model will provide as much or even more revenue for owners as riding, and encourage mahouts and elephant tourism companies to follow suit.
“This project has entirely changed the lives of the elephants at the park and it is also provides a much better experience for the tourists. Exploitation has been replaced with respect, and if successful it’s a model we could see spread across the country,” said Dionne Slagter, Animals Asia’s animal welfare manager. “They all look so much healthier and are increasingly confident in how far they roam.”
The group of retired elephants includes three females, Bun Kham, Y’Khun and H’Non, and one bull, Thong Ngan. The elephants are also now able to form bonds with one another, and are beginning to the display the naturally complex social and emotional behaviour that herds would in the wild.
To help with the transition, UK charity Olsen Animal Trust provided funding to to cover any initial losses, allowing the park to continue employing mahouts and guides to help ensure safety.
Awareness of the negative effects of elephant riding has increased in recent years, with a growing number of tourists avoiding cruel attractions and supporting welfare centres and genuine sanctuaries instead, alongside an increasing number of tour operators refusing to sell elephant treks that include riding.
Many of the elephants used in riding and other activities, such as painting or performing tricks, will have been caught from the wild as babies, their mothers often killed. Once captured, they often undergo intensive conditioning known as “crushing the spirit”, where they are kept in tiny pens and beaten and starved, sometimes for weeks.
In Vietnam, the number of elephants in the wild is estimated to be as low as 65 to 95, which conservationists say is not viable for survival. Numbers have declined dramatically over the past few decades, from an estimated 2,000 in the 1980s. Vietnam’s elephant riding industry also made headlines in 2015, when several animals died from exhaustion. Campaigners and charities hope to continue to educate the industry around the world, and show how profitable ethical elephant experiences, with retired and rescued animals, can be instead.
Responsible Travel has said it will consider adding the new Yok Don tour to their list of ethical elephant experiences – this would be the first in Vietnam to be included.
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